Marxist philosopher Étienne Balibar sits down with Jacobin to discuss freedom and democracy — and why socialists need to reclaim those words from the Right.

Étienne Balibar in France in 1998. (Louis Monier / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

In a recent Veterans Day speech, Donald Trump leaned into some of his favorite Red Scare rhetoric: “We will root out the communists, Marxists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.” The words came months after Trump announced a plan for a vicious immigration crackdown that would include an ideological screening to keep socialists and other radicals from entering the country.

Trump’s hysteria serves as a salutary reminder: socialism is still the Right’s favorite hobbyhorse, the thing it most loves to hate. And it’s not hard to understand why right-wing warriors like Trump keep going back to that well; after all, socialism is usually framed as the opposite of that most hallowed American value, freedom.

Admittedly, French Marxist philosopher Étienne Balibar is an unlikely candidate to change their minds. Still, for decades, the famous coauthor of Reading Capital has encouraged socialists to reclaim freedom and democracy as their rightful inheritance and go one step beyond: the survival of the socialist project, he insists, depends on redefining what those ideas actually mean in the present.

For years, Balibar has insisted that one of the key political struggles for leftists is over the meaning of ideas like freedom, individuality, and rights — words whose significance has either been corrupted by decades of neoliberal consumerism or been completely abandoned to the conservative right.

Jacobin contributors Viviane Magno Ribeiro and Alexandre Pinto Mendes sat down recently with the legendary Marxist philosopher to discuss political rights, the socialist transition, and why the Left needs to reclaim its mantle as the champion of true democracy.

Viviane Magno

Alexandre Pinto Mendes

Libertarians and conservatives often try to brand themselves the defenders of “liberty” and “freedom.” Meanwhile, the Left increasingly professes its adherence to values like “protection,” “welfare,” and “security.” Is the distinction between freedom and protection even an opposition, and if so, how do you see this polarization developing politically in the future?

Étienne Balibar

The idea of liberty has itself been contested and challenged since its very origins in modern times because the very notion of “liberty” is a divided one, or what British analytic philosopher W. B. Gallie very interestingly called an “essentially contested concept.” Such concepts, which always have a philosophical or metaphysical dimension as well as immediate political relevance, can never become unified or subsumed under a single, universally accepted definition. They are the site of permanent opposition.

The conflict in politics is thus not between those who valorize liberty and those who neglect it or choose another principle. It is between antithetic concepts of liberty itself. This is also not just the classic distinction between a “negative” concept and a “positive” concept of freedom, but rather an individualistic concept — preferred by the liberal tradition — and a democratic concept, which involves a collective agency. In the latter, citizens “liberate” each other or grant themselves freedom reciprocally.

However, it has to be admitted that a certain tradition on the Left — especially under the influence of a “narrow” reading of some of [Karl] Marx’s texts — endorsed the idea that “liberty” is a “bourgeois” value per se, because it would conflate economic liberty (free competition, etc.) based on private property with political or juridical “liberties” (i.e., rights), which are deemed purely “formal.” This is historically wrong and theoretically based on a basic confusion, but it has had lasting and catastrophic effects on the Left. In fact, the Right has been able to capitalize on that confusion.

Similar considerations could be proposed about the idea of “protection” or “security,” which is also a divided one. The experience of the pandemic generated interesting developments within these debates. There has been a debate about whether we should regard as antidemocratic the restriction measures that were “imposed” by the state on individual or collective freedoms (such as freedom of circulation) as “protections” against the dissemination of the virus.

The conflict in politics is thus not between those who valorize liberty and those who neglect it or choose another principle. It is between antithetic concepts of liberty itself.

I will admit that coercive measures such as isolation, quarantine, lockdowns, and mandatory vaccination ought to be democratically discussed with the society, the doctors, and the various levels of government instead of being imposed in an authoritarian manner. Even if we admit that a general rule must exist, there is still a real danger in the future that sanitary controls could become amalgamated with other forms of police surveillance and prolonged beyond necessity. This calls for democratic vigilance and intervention.

Viviane Magno

Alexandre Pinto Mendes

Socialists often assert that a “true democracy” is one that goes beyond political rights to affect the economic realm — the implication being that socialism is itself the true democracy. Is it overly simplistic, though, to take for granted an intrinsic relationship between democracy and socialism?

Étienne Balibar

I actually agree with the idea that socialism and democracy have an intrinsic relationship. Or better still, given the disastrous fact that the idea of “socialism” — including things like planning, redistribution, development, and mass education — has been associated with the more or less complete abolition of democracy, in the end leading to the collapse of socialism itself, it’s clear that we must work towards an “organic” combination of socialism and democracy. This certainly influences our very understanding of what “socialism” means, but it should also affect our understanding of what “democracy” means.

I have argued that there are historically three main forms of democratic institutions: those based on representation, direct participation, and social conflict. In Marx’s “communist” program, especially after the Paris Commune, the accent is heavily on “direct” democracy or participation against “representation,” which Marx — or better still, his followers — tended to reduce to “parliamentary” democracy. Perhaps this was too hasty a reduction, and where social conflictuality is concerned, it can actually be dangerous. In fact, the direct form of democracy was conceived on the model of small communities. With social and political problems becoming increasingly global — one need only think of the consequences of climate change, which have become the central problem for humankind — we need various degrees of socialism and various combinations of democratic institutions at different levels, from the local to the global.

For all these reasons, as well as others, I am not a great fan of the formula “true freedom is the kind that is extended beyond the political realm,” which seems to leave the definition of the political unaffected. True freedom is one that revolutionizes the political itself, to begin with its fictitious “isolation” from the social and the economic spheres. It is not just a matter of including politics or political agency in the revolutionary praxis, but of practicing politics in a different, more egalitarian, and imaginative manner (something, it has to be acknowledged, organized socialist parties rarely succeeded in preserving over the long run).

Viviane Magno

Alexandre Pinto Mendes

Over a decade ago, in an attempt to push the issue of rights to the top of the Left agenda, you coined the term “equaliberty.” Can that concept help us to disentangle the relationship between democracy and socialism? Could we say that equaliberty was part of an attempt to think beyond an increasingly sterile tendency to separate democracy in two halves, i.e., a “good” socialist one to come and a “bad” existing bourgeois one?

Étienne Balibar

I coined the portmanteau word “equaliberty” (in French égaliberté) at the time of the bicentenary of the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, hence the discussions about the meaning of the principles of the “bourgeois revolution.” But I did not entirely invent it: there existed a long philological tradition, to which I was explicitly referring, tracing back to the Roman terminology of “aequum ius” and “aequa libertas,” and more recently renewed by the insistence of such “liberal” philosophers as John Rawls on the importance of “equal liberty.”

However, Rawls immediately cancelled the symmetry that his formulation suggested, by explaining that there must exist between “equality” and “liberty” — a “lexicographic order,” so that, in case of conflict between the two values, liberty must prevail over equality — which he deemed to be the socialist value par excellence. What I wanted to do with equaliberty was reestablish the complete symmetry.

After I had published my essay, I had the wonderful surprise to discover — through a commentary from the German Marxist philosopher Frieder Otto Wolf — that “equal liberty” was a key expression in the discourses of the Levellers, the radical wing in the English Revolution, especially during the Putney Debates of 1647. This of course considerably reinforced my argument.

My intention was not to suggest that between “equality” and “liberty” there is no tension, or that there can never be any conflict. On the contrary, I wanted to describe a more dialectical relationship: on the one hand, the conflicts are permanent and can’t be avoided, but they must find a dynamic resolution in every conjuncture through social practices and institutional inventions, which by definition are unstable.

On the other hand, one cannot give up looking for a resolution, because history demonstrates that there cannot really exist a society or a political regime that is effectively egalitarian while destroying liberty. “Really existing socialism” is a good example of this. Nor can there exist a regime that universally protects liberties while developing inequalities. Here, capitalist democracies are a good example. This “double negation” I called an elenchus or “refutation” in the ancient (Greek) logical sense.

History demonstrates that there cannot really exist a society or a political regime that is effectively egalitarian while destroying liberty

But I also wanted to demonstrate that the traditional — liberal and Marxist — way of separating the idea “human rights” from the idea of “political rights” — or “rights of man” and “rights of the citizen,” in the terminology of the Déclaration — was not the good reading of the classical principles, which in fact do not separate the two categories of rights or do not explicitly define the fundamental rights as political or civic rights. This is also coherent with Hannah Arendt’s notion of “rights to have rights.” Equaliberty would be the core of this dialectical unity.

To this idea I can add three correlated consequences. One, it gave rise to a controversy stemming from the critique of Soviet-type socialist regimes suppressing liberties, but also the development of “humanitarian interventionism.” In essence, the debate was: Can there exist something like a “politics of human rights,” or, to the contrary, is the discourse of “human rights” a pure moralistic discourse that can also be used as a cover for imperialist policies? In France, Claude Lefort defended the first position and Marcel Gauchet defended the second. I sided with Lefort on this point, leaving open, of course, the question of a just application of the principle.

A second debate was concerning how to reconcile the “rights of man” with the “rights of the citizen.” In other words, the point was to explain that the fundamental rights are always already political, and that the legal status of the citizen (e.g. its identification with “nationality”, what some American theorists call “ascribed citizenship”) does not necessarily restrict the universality of “human rights.” On the contrary, it means that, inasmuch as they are political, human or fundamental rights, when they are claimed or “discovered” in history have an “insurrectional” character. From the insurrection derives the institution, not the reverse. Or the insurrection includes an “institutional imagination,” a pouvoir instituant (in the terminology of Saint-Just, the French Jacobin).

The idea of equaliberty involves a rectification of the “standard Marxist” understanding of the “bourgeois revolutions” and a return to the understanding of the younger Marx of 1843 and the idea of “permanent revolution”: at the core of the “bourgeois” insurrections, or their popular component, there is a tendency which I expressed as equaliberty. I also conceive of this tendency as a key dimension of communism, which always already subverts and overcomes the limitations of the bourgeois constitutions, be they grounded in the law of private property, or racial and gender hierarchies. Therefore, it contributes to canceling a “linear” view of the history of revolutions, in which the “bourgeois” moment belongs to the past, and the socialist-communist moment belongs to the future: it is in the present — every new present — that this conflict has to be reenacted.

Viviane Magno

Alexandre Pinto Mendes

You’ve noted in several places that labor precarity and working-class fragmentation have a strong correlation with declining standards of citizenship and “negative individualism.” This trend also seems to be behind what has been called the crisis of the party-form or the mass party in modern democracies.

As someone who has thought deeply about the politics of associative forms, communities, and the ways that individuals and collectives are bound together, do you see a way back to recover the party form in a way that means more than simply proselytizing for a return to the old mass parties of social democracy? Perhaps a party-movement?

Étienne Balibar

Mass parties with a democratic dimension have always worked in articulation with “movements,” all the more so if they are not — to use an infamous Stalinist metaphor — pure “transmission belts.” If you return from there to the meaning of the category “party” in its original use by Marx and [Friedrich] Engels in the Communist Manifesto, whose original title was Manifesto of the Communist Party, you see that the “party” explicitly is not a separate organization. It is a doctrine combining a vision of history, the revolutionary role of the proletariat, and the program of political and social transition towards a classless society. And that doctrine can become “hegemonic” among a multiplicity of movements, thus creating something like a “movement of movements.”

The understanding of the “party-form” as a separate and disciplined organization came from a later evolution in which the imperative was to gather forces — essentially at the national level, notwithstanding the “internationalist” commitments — to “seize the power of the state,” first in a parliamentary manner, then in a revolutionary manner, or even a strategic combination of both: typically, the Gramscian notion of the “war of position.”

I believe that, for a number of historical and social reasons, the two forms have become obsolete, even if something crucial must remain from them — for example, the problem of political “hegemony” or the problem of political “organization.” A new “party-form” must be invented or discovered among existing experiences. This is true, first, if we believe that in a society of deep antagonisms, changes are brought about only through struggle in multiple forms, hence the expression of “partiality” or “partisanship”; and, second, if we believe that where power is concentrated in the hands of a technocratic and corporate elite, a broad popular counterpower must emerge. But those forms are not predetermined. There is no “model” for the party to come.

There are, however, several related questions that must be addressed. One: the typical social democratic party is one that organizes elements in the “civil society,” directly or through subsidiary organizations, with a view to seizing or controlling the state apparatus. It is, therefore, anchored in a dualistic representation of the society and the nation, where “civil society” and “state” are external to one another. Already, Gramsci had perceived the limitations of this representation in relation to the emergence of the “welfare state.” [Nicos] Poulantzas went further in that direction.

We must understand that the political struggle permeates both state and society, even if the welfare state is increasingly ineffective — outside the “North” — or progressively dismantled by neoliberal policies. It particularly involves a struggle for the democratization of “public services.” This is best conducted by civic movements, not “parties” in the parliamentary sense, and of course not “subversive” organizations.

Second: you rightly emphasize the question of “negative individualism.” I did not invent that formula but instead took it from the great French sociologist Robert Castel in his book on Les Métamorphoses de la question sociale, une chronique du salariat. He later dropped the formula because its “negative” connotations made it difficult to use in conversations with precarious (young) workers who resented it as stigmatizing.

While aware of this problem, I stick to the expression, which I believe touches on an important question: movements and forms of political organization in the labor movement involved very strong feelings and practices of solidarity, partly based on the conditions of the labor process itself, partly inherited and transposed from the “communitarian” traditions and memories of the workers uprooted from their agricultural communities. E. P. Thompson and other historians have explored this dimension.

Neoliberal policies systematically dismantle the conditions that make these bonds of solidarity possible, and in that sense, they are consciously counterrevolutionary. They create absolute precariousness and what Castel called “de-affiliation.” Then, these forms of precariousness tend to clash with other forms of precariousness, e.g. the “déracinement” of migrant workers with their own forms of ethnic, cultural, racial, or even religious solidarities. No new form of democratic, socialist, or communist partisanship can emerge if these “contradictions among the people” are not confronted and resolved, which is not an easy task.

Third, to speak of “mass party” and the articulation of “party” and “movements” is also, inevitably, to raise the vexed question of the difference-cum-analogies between socialist traditions and fascist traditions. I make no confusion between them, but I believe that we must address very seriously, historically and in the present, the question of the circulation of models and the possibilities of perversion of one into the other. This is a lesson of the twentieth century, which we had better not to forget. It is also one of the reasons why the insistence on combining the socialist project with strong (radical) democratic ideals and commitments is so central. It leads to such key issues in the institution of the “party-form” as internal discipline, the function of the “leader,” etc.

A socialism that is not internationalist will become nationalist — there is not really a middle term.

I am not on the side of those friends and fellow socialists who believe that there can exist a “left populism,” although I acknowledge that a purely “anarchist” representation of the movement (or the movement of movements) is a contradiction in terms. This is another riddle. I also believe that the question is made completely inevitable if we stick to the idea and principles of internationalism. A socialism that is not internationalist will become nationalist — there is not really a middle term.

Viviane Magno

Alexandre Pinto Mendes

Recently, you’ve been revisiting an old debate: the socialist transition. By embracing Bernstein’s old adage — “the final goal is nothing, the movement is everything” — your declared objective is to rethink the question of the transition without the old trappings of “stageism” and “statism.” How do you envision such a socialist transition in which “the goal is nothing?”

Étienne Balibar

I want to avoid any possible confusion here. I’ve isolated Bernstein’s formula from its context: his 1899 plea for “gradualism,” and the subsequent “Bernstein debate” in European social democracy, which would call for a long discussion. When I quote Bernstein’s formula, I am not suggesting that there are no goals, or that goals are unimportant, but that they are immanent to the movement itself and therefore redefined and clarified as the movement develops, its forces unite, the obstacles identified and overcome.

Therefore, I take it to be essentially synonymous with the famous definition of communism proposed by Marx in the German Ideology (1846) as a movement that transforms/abolishes (in German aufhebt, the key dialectical category) the existing “state of affairs,” i.e. the very form of the society. I also associated this with the idea that conflict and conflictual democracy are not just an instrument, but remain “eternally” an intrinsic characteristic of a society whose objective is not the stabilization of some institutional regime, but the permanent capacity to transform and regenerate itself. For that reason, there is no “final goal,” no goal that would be “the end.”

Today, still in reference to Marx but more critically, I would add that this goes along with a rejection of the metaphysical assumption to be found in the preface to the Critique of Political Economy (1859): “Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.” This is wrong. For its most important “tasks,” mankind doesn’t have the conditions of the solution, they must be created and invented themselves, which is an “aleatory” process — as my master [Louis] Althusser wrote in his last essays — in the course of the movement. Actually, this evolutionary metaphysics is closely associated with what you call “stageism.”

But to renounce stageism and statism is not to renounce the idea of transition, far less the idea of revolutionary transition. This “problem” is more than ever on the order of the day, and must be explored in every possible manner — from the immediate and most urgent objectives, to the new forms of organization and the radically democratic institutions, which mean that you are not “using” existing forms of power without “deconstructing” them.

To renounce stageism and statism is not to renounce the idea of transition, far less the idea of revolutionary transition.

In the essay to which you implicitly refer, from my volume Histoire interminable (Ecrits I, 2020), I proposed a generalization of Lenin’s motto: the state in the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is a unity of opposites, a “State non-State” or a state that immediately begins to “wither away.” For sure, this is not exactly what took place in the actual history of the Soviet Union, but there is a crucial dialectical intuition linked to the idea that “the transition” is a movement which transforms its own forces and constitutional forms. I proposed to view the transition as involving “State non-State,” “Market non-Market,” and “Industry non-Industry” (which means a revolution in the very idea of “productivity”).

It is in this framework that I invoked the notion of “regulation,” which in my opinion is essentially valid when we consider global problems, such as global warming, but also disarmament and the regulation of the arms race, or the regulation of financial operations, or the regulation of intellectual property/monopoly, or the interdiction of sexist-homophobic violence internationally. But I did not identify the political concept of transition as such with regulations: I suggested that it must combine regulations with “insurrections” and “utopias.”

Viviane Magno

Alexandre Pinto Mendes

Along with the transition debate, the Left has largely abandoned discussions of the legitimate, democratic, or even revolutionary use of force. Years after the Maoist so-called popular army, there are still interesting contemporary examples of community policing among the Kurds, or in certain communities in Mexico, but the question of democratic management of conflict has largely disappeared from wider debates. Since so much of your thinking turns around the question of political violence, should we not be thinking more deeply about what it would mean to democratize the social institutions responsible for the use of force?

Étienne Balibar

There is a metaphysical and a political dimension to the question of force and violence. Incidentally, the two terms are combined in German as a single word with a broad range of applications: Gewalt (which explains some of the oscillations in the reading of classical texts such as Engels’s The Role of Force in History). There are permanent divisions around the function and the conditions for the use of violence, especially armed or “militarized” violence.

It would be a long story to discuss the issue fully, but there are several points worth addressing. First, there can be no universal, undifferentiated political doctrine regarding the use of violence to achieve social transformations because the conditions are never freely chosen. However, it is also not the case that, in any political situation, there is only one possibility, which is to react to the violent dominant order with a symmetric “revolutionary violence.” The universal characteristic of class societies or, more generally, states of domination, is that the rulers wage more or less open preemptive counterrevolutionary violence and are ready to implement violence to protect their privileges. Then, to what extremes they can go if their domination is challenged by democratic movements is a matter of the relationship of political forces, not just deducible from their interests. This is where concrete politics begins.

Second, whenever violence — or even war — has been used for revolutionary means in an authentic sense, it has been waged in revolutionary, notably egalitarian forms that are distinct from the militaristic tradition of imperial or national armies. This is what makes the examples of Rojava or Chiapas that you cite so interesting, their differences notwithstanding. The case of the Maoist “popular army” and the “long march” deserves critical scrutiny here, too, because, on the one hand, it is perhaps the greatest example in the twentieth century of a mass mobilization of the people — the poor peasants — in the service of resistance against an imperialist-fascist invasion, waged for their own social emancipation and for the realization of communist ideals of equality. This certainly would not have occurred without the “leadership” and the “discipline” imposed by the Communist Party. Probably, it also depended on the “harnessing” of age-old traditions of peasant rebellions against the landlords and the warlords, etc. But, with the hindsight of today’s vantage point, it is impossible not to wonder whether, in the history of modern China over one century, it was nationalism that served the goal of communism or, in fact, communism that served the goal of nationalism. A typical case of the Hegelian “cunning of history.”

Third, returning to the Marxist philosophy of history as expressed in the 1859 preface to the Critique, we can see that the evolutionist, stagiest, and also deterministic representation of social progress, combined with the “dialectical” idea that the motor of history is conflict, the “power of the negative,” etc., has also generated the idea — explicitly formulated in a famous passage of Marx’s Capital — that “violence is the midwife that delivers an old society harboring a new one in its womb” (which, in fact, is an old messianic allegory). Hence the metaphysical conviction that, in “revolutionary situations,” violence can accelerate the course of the transformation or transition but never deviate it or invert it. And the equally metaphysical conviction that a revolutionary force (party, movement, class etc.) could use violence, even extreme violence, in order to achieve its goals, without being affected internally by the dissolving effects of this violence.

As a consequence, the Russian Revolution, which began with the famous motto “to transform the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war,” ended in the construction of a completely militarized political system, fearing the rebellions of its own citizens and eliminating its own activists. This was, admittedly, within a context of continuous violent counterrevolution, but the revolution was not ideologically prepared to analyze these retroactions. Lenin and Gandhi remained totally foreign to one another. These are the questions that I tried to discuss in my book on Violence and Civility, drawing a problematic line of demarcation between “violence” and “extreme violence,” i.e., the one that no longer works as an “instrument” with its own political rationality in the Clausewitzian sense.

Any use of violence or counterviolence in a revolutionary process is not ruled out, but it could become a mere addition to the escalation of general violence, which I describe as the graveyard of politics.

Fourth, the current conjuncture, including the endless forms of extreme violence in the Middle East — both from inside and aggravated through foreign imperialist interventions — and now the hot war that has started in Europe, illustrates the depressing fact that an “economy of extreme violence” is not an exception but a normality, or rather a “normalized state of exception.” Achille Mbembe speaks of the “brutalization” of our societies.  Therefore, any use of violence or counterviolence in a revolutionary process is not ruled out, but this is a warning that it could become a mere addition to the escalation of general violence, which I describe as the graveyard of politics. With the category “civility,” which I define neither as “nonviolence” nor “counterviolence” but “antiviolence,” I try simply to find a name for this problem.

Viviane Magno

Alexandre Pinto Mendes

To paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, it seems like socialism should be thought of as a historical construction rather than a guaranteed future. You yourself have expressed skepticism about the continued usefulness of utopianism for leftist politics. We were wondering why that is.

Étienne Balibar

On the contrary, utopia is an essential, organic ingredient of every action and process aiming at the transformation of our unacceptable and unlivable world. In fact, “utopia” in its traditional uses covers many different meanings, some of which have been extensively documented and discussed by Karl Mannheim, Ernst Bloch, Miguel Abensour, Pierre Macherey, and more recently, by Erik Olin Wright.

I do not reject the idea of “imagining the future.” On the contrary, provided this is not identified with drawing detailed plans for the organization of the “socialist society.” Although, even there, the most extraordinary projects of “utopian socialism” in the nineteenth century, such as [Charles] Fourier or [Robert] Owen, did, in fact, embody a wealth of insurrectional imagination. I prefer a utopianism with the capacity to subvert the existing norms and institutions, rooted in actual practices of resistance and alternative modes of existence. Perhaps “experimentation of the future” would be a good formula, a “future” that may itself become altered as it is actively emerging.

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